The Musée d’Orsay is presenting the paintings of the donation by Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière as agreed in 2010, the usufruct on which ended with the death of Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière on 6 January 2016. Because of the sensitivity of the drawings to light, this collection cannot be put on permanent display.
This generous act marks a major event in the history of French public collections, and coincides with the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the museum.
The donation includes 25 paintings and 94 drawings by Bonnard; and 24 paintings, 3 pastels and 2 drawings by Vuillard. Begun in the 1960s by André Levy-Despas, Zeineb Kebaïli’s first husband, the collection has been enriched over more than forty years by Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Rivière. It expresses a tendency towards intimate subjects and mysterious compositions, even hermetic and caricatural at times. Musical evenings, unposed portraits, interiors with figures and urban scenes testify to the great similarities between Bonnard and Vuillard in the Nabi period. Paintings from the two painters’ later years complement this set of works produced in the 1890s.
In the 1890s, Bonnard and Vuillard took an interest in the same subjects, with a preference for intimate scenes representing their daily surroundings. They both adopted a very similar evocative style, to the point where they could be confused at times. The display plays on these similarities and these affinities by creating links between their paintings.
In these contemporary bourgeois decors, the furniture and accessories play an important role while the figures take second place. The fading out of motifs illuminated by artificial light conjures up images of the avant-garde symbolist theatre which Bonnard and Vuillard were closely connected to in the 1890s. Their interiors saturated with colourful vibrations represent Ibsenian scenes personified by members of their families and friends.
The small formats favoured by Bonnard and Vuillard allow viewers to concentrate their attention on the minute everyday gestures expressed by the shorthand of the paintbrush. By focusing on the observation of the interplay of actors, Vuillard manages to capture the supple gait of the actor Marthe Mellot’s walk, the curve of her back, and the extravagance of her hat, all in just a few strokes.
Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s passion for Parisian life coincided with the experimentation of their artistic liberty in a vibrant city. They transcribed their observations from memory and quick sketches which they reinterpreted in the studio. Bonnard’s street scenes convey his fascination for the spectacle that the boulevards represented. Isolating the motifs from the noise of the city, he captured the hurried pace of a washerwoman and played with the well-dressed with a mix of kindness and irony in the face of their fleeting beauty.
The painter’s inspiration is rooted in ordinary places such as his family house in Le Grand-Lemps in the Isère department of France where he worked during the summer. Dividing his time between Normandy and the Midi region of Southern France, he continued to paint his “wild garden” overlooking the River Seine. The Côte d’Azur, where Bonnard stayed as of 1906, became the setting of Arcadian idylls in the decorations he produced for his Muscovite patron Ivan Morosov (Study for Spring). The astounding beauty of the landscapes, the vibrancy of the sunlight and the luxuriance of the vegetation led the painter towards a lyrical and colourful interpretation of nature.
“Drawing is feeling” Bonnard drew throughout his life. He always had a sketchbook or a scrap of paper to hand and a pencil to capture everything he saw around him. He took his motifs from his everyday life, as well as the proportions and composition of the painting, which would be produced from memory in his studio based on a sketch. Through his drawings, Bonnard sought to capture the freshness of the feeling experienced during his observation, hence the paradoxical definition: “Drawing is feeling. Colour is reasoning"
The artist thus inverted the Academic approach which associated drawing with a preconceived idea: for him, drawing was spontaneous, free and dynamic. The artist drew, “with a light touch”, the pleasure of his visual discovery and the feelings it evoked within him. He did not seek clean lines, but the “expression of lines”, which rapidly portray an unexpected and intense experience.
“I have found many resources in nature” Almost one-third of the drawings in the Marcie-Rivière donation are landscapes, and many are taken from sketchbooks and albums. Bonnard’s landscapes are connected to places he loved and knew, Le Grand-Lemps, his family home in Le Dauphiné which he associated with holidays with his nephews, the Terrasse children, Vernonnet and Trouville, in Normandy, the Côte d’Azur, at Saint-Tropez, Grasse, Antibes and Le Cannet. He needed to come face to face with nature, and understand a place and a landscape before drawing it. He noted the weather on a daily basis in his diary, so as to preserve the memory of the daylight that struck him: “I sketch outdoors, whenever I find a lighting effect, a landscape or an atmosphere that strikes me”. His drawings express his exaltation and amazement at nature, at the movement of the foliage and the clouds. With a gently frenzy, he transcribed the world as he experienced it using dynamic and agitated, quick or emphatic lines, freed from aesthetics and the notion of picturesque.
Companions, lovers, models both known and anonymous, the female figures presented in both Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s paintings attest to different episodes of their romantic lives. From Bonnard’s radiant nudes bathed in light to Vuillard’s ghost-like figures, they animate the pages of a personal diary that was revealed with each new work. Toulouse-Lautrec, Vallotton, Bonnard and Vuillard were fascinated by Misia Godebska, a musician with a captivating charm who was married to the director of the La Revue blanche magazine, Thadée Natanson. Vuillard painted her portrait at a time when the young women, suffering and depressed, was on the verge of separating from her husband. Although Marthe, Bonnard’s mistress then wife, was omnipresent in his paintings since they met in 1893, she did not hold the painter’s exclusive attention. Nevertheless, her gracious physique can be seen in Nude Crouching in the Bathtub and Nude with Blue Glove .
Vuillard preferred to observe his models from a distance in the privacy of their homes. He was interested in interactions – conversations, meals, reading – and the relationship between the figures and the surrounding objects and spaces which he willingly distorted through a fisheye effect. Paying little attention to detail, he created his compositions using smudges of colours and shapes fitted together. The glue-size painting technique, where the pigment is applied in fine superimposed layers or hatched without any possibility for remorse, fosters a suggestive interpretation of the motif.
As of 1899, nudes became a key subject in Bonnard’s art. Between 1903 and 1910, he painted more than fifty nudes directly from models while continuing to paint from memory using drawings produced from nature. In the 1910s, he changed his working method and prepared his nude paintings using drawings, in order to free himself from the influence of colour. He lengthened his figures, largely inspired by Marthe, his favourite model.
His nudes do not appear in Academic poses, but have a slightly unstable and off-centre attitude, which evokes the snapshots taken by the artist at that time and used as materials for his drawings. Bonnard boldly distorted his nudes to favour the general composition, mindful of balance in a setting where objects, spaces and figures are all interlinked.